Oliver W. Hill at the General Assembly

Oliver W. Hill (1907–2007)

Oliver W. Hill was an African American attorney and civil rights activist. As the lead attorney for the Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Hill and his colleagues filed more legal challenges to segregation than any other lawyers in the South and successfully undermined segregation and discrimination in all walks of southern life. Born in Richmond, Hill earned his law degree in 1933 at Howard University, where he met Thurgood Marshall, a future NAACP lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court associate justice. In coordination with Marshall, then special counsel for the NAACP, Hill argued on behalf of black teachers in Norfolk who received less pay than white teachers for equal work. After winning a federal appeals court ruling in 1940, Hill became an NAACP attorney in Virginia. He was one of the leading lawyers in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward, one of five suits that were consolidated into the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). In the landmark decision, the Supreme Court declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. Hill believed political activism went hand in hand with the legal assault on segregation, and ran repeatedly for political office as a way to encourage African Americans to register and vote. In 1948, Hill became the first African American elected to the Richmond city council since 1894. He retired from the law in 1998 and died at his home in Richmond in 2007. MORE...

 

Early Years

Hill was born Oliver White in Richmond on May 1, 1907, the son of Olivia Lewis White and William Henry White Jr. His father abandoned the family while Hill was an infant. To provide for herself and her young son, Hill's mother worked at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, leaving Hill to be cared for by his great-grandmother. While at the Homestead, Olivia White met and married Joseph C. Hill. Oliver Hill took his stepfather's name. When Hill was six, his family moved to Roanoke, where his stepfather operated a pool hall for a time before returning to the Homestead to work. Hill lived with family friends while his parents worked out of town. By 1920, his parents had moved to Washington, D.C., and in 1923, Hill joined them to attend Dunbar High School, a public college preparatory school for African Americans. Hill graduated and entered Howard University. During his sophomore year at Howard, his step-uncle, who had been a lawyer, died, and Hill inherited his law books. Reading them, Hill learned about the Supreme Court's often-troubling role in the history of African American civil rights and decided to use the law to right these wrongs. In 1930, while still an undergraduate, he entered Howard University School of Law, earning a bachelor's degree in 1931 and an LLB in 1933.

Hill's time at Howard was transformative. While at the law school, he came under the tutelage of vice dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who inspired his students to take a lead in organizing black communities to demand full equality before the law. Hill also forged a deep and lifelong friendship with classmate and future Supreme Court associate justice Thurgood Marshall. Hill also met his wife while at Howard. Beresenia Ann "Bernie" Walker, a native of Richmond, attended Miner Normal School (located across the street from Howard University) and became a public-school teacher in Washington, D.C. Walker and Hill married on September 5, 1934, and had twin sons, one of whom was stillborn, in 1949. They named their surviving son Oliver W. Hill Jr.

Hill returned to Roanoke to practice law, but business was poor, perhaps as a result of the Great Depression. In 1936 he returned to Washington, where his wife continued to teach. For a time he worked as a waiter, partly in the hope of organizing local waiters and cooks into a union that would be accepted as an affiliate group of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).

Early NAACP Work

In Roanoke, Hill had crossed paths again with Houston, who had taken an extended leave of absence and then resigned from his position as dean of Howard University School of Law to become special legal counsel for the national office of the NAACP. The civil rights organization had committed to challenging segregation in education, and as special counsel Houston conceived of the group's legal strategy. Knowing that in the short term it would be futile to challenge the constitutionality of segregation, Houston sought to force southern states to create equal public education facilities for black children. If the financial burden of creating and maintaining separate but equal facilities did not force integration, then the NAACP, through its various legal actions, at least would have established a series of precedents making a direct challenge to the constitutionality of segregation possible. Houston started where the inequalities were most obvious—in graduate education and in teachers' salaries—but he also investigated elementary and secondary education. Hill assisted by photographing one-room schools in the counties around Roanoke and auditing their conditions.

Hill joined the Roanoke branch of the NAACP and became involved with the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP when it was organized in the winter of 1934–1935. The Virginia State Conference, headquartered in Richmond, supported local branches of the NAACP and coordinated statewide voter-registration campaigns and challenges to discrimination, particularly in education. The board of directors of the State Conference soon requested that the national office assist in mounting a legal challenge targeting inequalities in Virginia teachers' salaries.

In 1939 Hill moved to Richmond, where he intended to establish a law practice with two other attorneys. When those plans fell through, Hill practiced law but soon became deeply involved in legal work with the State Conference. By late in the 1930s, Virginia's NAACP had joined forces with the Virginia State Teachers Association, the professional organization of black teachers, to form the Joint Committee on the Equalization of Teachers' Salaries. As attorney for the Joint Committee, Hill began working with teachers in the city of Norfolk, where black teachers such as Melvin O. Alston and Aline Black were paid less than white teachers who had similar credentials. Hill also coordinated his work with Thurgood Marshall, who had taken over Houston's work as special counsel in the NAACP's national office in New York City and who had successfully challenged teacher-salary inequalities in his home state of Maryland.

Together, Hill and Marshall launched a case in federal district court arguing that the Norfolk school board discriminated against African American teachers. Alston v. School Board of City of Norfolk was the first federal court case in which Hill was involved, and he worked closely with Marshall and William Hastie, the dean of Howard School of Law, to prepare the briefs, file motions, and argue the case. They lost in federal district court, but on June 18, 1940, won a favorable ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The court ruled that the pay scale was clearly discriminatory and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The city of Norfolk appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear the case. Over the next three years, Hill continued to represent the teachers as they negotiated a settlement with the school board to equalize teacher pay.

The Alston case cemented Hill's position as the lead NAACP lawyer in Virginia. In other southern states, Thurgood Marshall often litigated the cases himself, but in Virginia, he relied on Hill to wage the NAACP's campaign. Both Hill and Marshall were carrying out Houston's vision of using the NAACP's litigation campaign as a way to organize African Americans to challenge segregation and to demand their right to first-class citizenship. The Alston case emboldened black teachers in at least fourteen other Virginia localities to challenge discriminatory salary scales. Hill, often accompanied by Virginia State Conference president J. M. Tinsley, traveled to these communities to meet with plaintiffs, negotiate with school boards, and organize NAACP branches. Soon the legal campaign broadened beyond teachers' salaries, as parents began to demand that counties provide their children with bus transportation or with high-school facilities. Hill took on all these challenges. His work contributed to the NAACP's growth in Virginia: by 1941, the Virginia State Conference consisted of thirty-nine branches, the most of any state.

Early in the 1940s, Hill expanded the NAACP's legal campaign beyond education, challenging discrimination in all areas of southern life: the workplace, public facilities, transportation, voting rights, and the criminal justice system. As the legal campaign gained momentum, Hill recruited other attorneys to join the fight. Fellow Howard Law graduates Martin A. Martin and Robert H. Cooley Jr.operated out of Danville and Petersburg, respectively.

By 1942, Hill confronted the possibility of being drafted into World War II. He persuaded Spottswood W. Robinson III, a Richmond native and a 1939 graduate of Howard School of Law, to open a law office with him, thinking that Robinson could sustain his legal work if he, Hill, were pressed into service. Soon after, Martin joined them to form the firm Hill, Martin, and Robinson.

Hill was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, just weeks after his thirty-sixth birthday. He wrote in his autobiography, The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond (2000), that he believed state authorities had arranged for him to be drafted in order to thwart his civil rights work, and that he was under regular surveillance by the army's intelligence branch. Hill was a staff sergeant in an engineering unit that landed in France three weeks after the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and provided logistical support for the remainder of the European campaign. After the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Hill and his unit were transferred to the Philippines, but by the time they arrived, Japan, too, had surrendered. A few weeks later, Hill was discharged and returned to Richmond.

On the home front, Martin and Robinson continued the fight against segregation. Most notably, they took on the case of Irene Morgan, who had refused to give up her seat on a bus en route to Baltimore from Gloucester County and had been arrested in Middlesex County for violating Virginia's segregation law. In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court in Morgan v. Virginia declared segregation in interstate transportation unconstitutional.

After the war Hill and his colleagues, with support from the national office of the NAACP, intensified their assault on legalized segregation. In 1947 Marshall selected the Virginia NAACP to launch a county-by-county campaign to eliminate inequalities between black and white schools. By 1948, legal challenges were under way in more than half of the state's 125 school divisions and the organization had won key cases in King George, Gloucester, Chesterfield, and Surry counties. But the campaign proved labor-intensive and expensive for the Virginia NAACP, as county officials sought to evade court orders to eliminate inequalities between segregated schools. Moreover, the attorneys realized that their legal efforts most often resulted in newer segregated schools for black children, rather than the dismantling of segregation altogether. By 1950, the NAACP decided to abandon the county-by-county campaign and seek a direct attack on the constitutionality of segregation.

Brown and Massive Resistance

Hill did not go looking for the case that could directly challenge segregation; the case found him. On the afternoon of April 23, 1951, Hill received a call at his law office from two teenaged girls in Farmville, Prince Edward County, who were students at Robert Russa Moton High School. They told him they had walked out of classes that morning in protest of the school's inadequate and unequal facilities, and they asked Hill for his help. Hill and Robinson met with the Moton students on April 25 and were swayed by their determination. The attorneys agreed to take the case if the students and their parents agreed to challenge the constitutionality of segregation directly. On May 3, Farmville's black community held a meeting at First Baptist Church to vote on whether the NAACP should represent them. After vigorous debate, the community agreed to the legal challenge. On May 23, Robinson filed the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward in federal district court, asking the court to prevent the county from discriminating against black students and to declare segregation unconstitutional.

Hill was one of the lead trial lawyers in the Davis case at the federal district court level and appeared on the briefs as the case went forward to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bundled Davis with four other segregation cases from South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, and Washington, D.C., all under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional and violated the Fourteenth Amendment; however, the justices did not order desegregation. Instead, the court asked the lawyers to present arguments on how desegregation might proceed. In a subsequent ruling on May 31, 1955, often referred to as Brown II, the Supreme Court ruled that public-school desegregation should proceed "with all deliberate speed" and remanded the cases to the federal district court level to oversee the process of desegregation. The yearlong delay between the Brown and Brown II decisions, combined with the court's ambiguous order, provided southern states with the opportunity to stall and evade the court's mandate. Virginia emerged as a leader in forestalling public-school desegregation.

In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Hill was an outspoken advocate of desegregation and a persistent and outspoken opponent of the General Assembly's so-called Massive Resistance program. He met with the governor, testified before committees of the General Assembly, and spoke publicly at community meetings and on the television and radio, consistently championing the Supreme Court's decision and encouraging Virginians to abandon segregation. As he told the Gray Commission, a group appointed by the governor to recommend a response to Brown, on November 15, 1954, "Gentlemen, face the dawn and not the setting sun. A new day is being born."

Hill and his colleagues on the NAACP legal staff—which numbered thirteen by the mid-1950s—worked with local communities to desegregate public schools. Cases were filed in Norfolk, Charlottesville, Warren County, and Arlington. At the same time, Hill and his colleagues continued to press the federal district court to set a date for the desegregation of public schools in Prince Edward County. It took four years, but in May 1959, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Prince Edward County schools to desegregate that September. In response, county officials closed all public schools. As part of Massive Resistance, the General Assembly also passed laws targeting the Virginia NAACP. These laws required the organization to register with the state and make its membership lists public, expanded the definition of "unprofessional conduct" by attorneys, and created two legislative committees—the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities and the Joint Committee on Offenses Against the Administration of Justice—to investigate the NAACP's activities.

The Virginia State Conference challenged the constitutionality of these new laws, which made it difficult to file new desegregation cases, caused membership to plummet, and drained the organization's treasury. Hill found himself on the witness stand defending his work in Davis and other civil rights cases. He also defended his colleague Samuel Wilbert Tucker from disbarment proceedings. On January 14, 1963, after a six-year court fight, the Supreme Court ruled in NAACP v. Button that the Virginia State Conference's activities were "modes of expression and association" protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments. This case proved significant in protecting the rights of civil rights protestors during the 1960s.

Political Campaigns

Oliver Hill believed that litigation was only one way to challenge segregation and discrimination; African Americans also had to exercise their right to vote. Hill ran for political office repeatedly as a way to encourage African Americans to pay their poll taxes, register, and vote. In 1947, he ran in the Democratic primary to represent the city of Richmond in the House of Delegates. To broaden his support, he also campaigned among white progressive citizens and labor-union members. Hill placed eighth out of eighteen candidates in the primary race and missed being on the ballot in November by 190 votes.

The next year, in 1948, Hill again appealed both to black and white voters in his campaign for a seat on the Richmond city council and this time succeeded—the first African American in Richmond to do so since Henry J. Moore, who served from 1892 to 1898. Two years later, though, Hill lost his reelection campaign by only forty-four votes. In 1955, Hill ran in the Democratic primary for the House of Delegates; he was the only black candidate and the only candidate who urged compliance with the Brown decision. He failed to make the ballot.

Later Years

Hill's reputation as an attorney and his political activism caught the attention of national Democratic Party leaders. In 1952, President Harry S. Truman appointed Hill to the Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which monitored compliance with the antidiscrimination clauses in federal government contracts. In 1960, Hill was appointed to the Democratic Party's biracial committee of twenty-four people to prepare civil rights policy for the party's platform at that year's national convention. The Democratic Party in Richmond censured the chairman of the national Democratic Party for appointing Hill to the committee.

In 1961, Hill joined the administration of President John F. Kennedy as the assistant for intergroup relations to the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, where he promoted fair housing practices. In 1966, Hill returned to private legal practice as a partner in the firm Hill, Tucker, and Marsh in Richmond. (Tucker had been a classmate of Hill's at Howard; Hill and Henry L. Marsh III met when both men testified before the General Assembly in opposition to Massive Resistance.) In 1968, Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr. appointed Hill to the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Revision, which authored the Virginia Constitution of 1971. He retired from his law firm in 1998.

In 1999, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2005, he received the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor. In 2003, he was named Virginian of the Year by the General Assembly. In Richmond in 1996, the new Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court building was named for Hill. Hill is also the only African American to have a state building named after him. In 2005, the renovated Finance Building, the third most historically significant building on Capitol Square in Richmond, was renamed the Oliver W. Hill Sr. Building.

Hill died at home surrounded by his family on August 5, 2007, only a few months after he celebrated his 100th birthday.

Time Line

  • May 1, 1907 - Oliver White, later Oliver W. Hill, is born in Richmond, the son of Olivia Lewis White and William Henry White Jr.
  • 1913 - Oliver W. Hill moves with his family from Bath County to Roanoke, where his stepfather operates a pool hall.
  • 1920 - By this year, the parents of Oliver W. Hill have moved to Washington, D.C.
  • 1923 - Oliver W. Hill moves to Washington, D.C., where he attends Dunbar High School, a public college preparatory school for African Americans.
  • 1930 - While still an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Oliver W. Hill enters the university's law school.
  • 1931 - Oliver W. Hill earns a bachelor's degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
  • 1933 - Oliver W. Hill earns an LLB degree from the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.
  • September 5, 1934 - Oliver W. Hill and Beresenia Ann "Bernie" Walker, both natives of Richmond, marry in Washington, D.C.
  • 1935 - Oliver W. Hill serves on the nominating committee at the organizational meeting of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.
  • 1936 - After a short stint practicing law in Roanoke, Oliver W. Hill returns to Washington, D.C., where his wife is a public-school teacher.
  • 1939 - Oliver W. Hill moves from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, intending to establish a law practice with two other attorneys.
  • June 18, 1940 - In Alston v. School Board of City of Norfolk, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rules that the comparatively low pay of black teachers in Norfolk is discriminatory and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court will decline to hear another appeal.
  • 1941 - By this year, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP consists of thirty-nine branches, the most of any state.
  • 1943 - Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson III form a Richmond law firm; they are later joined by Martin A. Martin.
  • June 1944 - Oliver W. Hill serves as a staff sergeant in an engineering unit that lands in France three weeks after the D-Day invasion and provides logistical support from near Le Havre for the remainder of the European conflict.
  • March 27, 1946 - The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case of Morgan v. Virginia.
  • 1947 - Thurgood Marshall, general counsel for the NAACP, selects the Virginia NAACP to launch a county-by-county campaign to eliminate inequalities between black and white schools. The campaign will be abandoned by 1950 in favor of a direct attack on segregation.
  • 1949 - Beresenia Walker Hill, wife of Oliver W. Hill, gives birth to twin sons, one of whom is stillborn. The Hills name the surviving son Oliver White Hill Jr.
  • April 23, 1951 - Under the leadership of Barbara Johns, fellow students at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County walk out of their school to protest the unequal conditions of their education as compared to those of the white students in nearby Farmville High School.
  • April 25, 1951 - Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson, lawyers for the NAACP, arrive in Prince Edward County to help the students of Robert Russa Moton High School, who have gone on strike.
  • May 3, 1951 - Members of the black community in Farmville hold a meeting at First Baptist Church to vote on whether the NAACP should represent them in a suit against Prince Edward County. After vigorous debate, the community agrees to pursue the legal challenge.
  • May 23, 1951 - The NAACP files the suit Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of segregated education in Prince Edward County schools on behalf of black students and their parents.
  • 1952 - President Harry S. Truman appoints Oliver W. Hill Sr. to the Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which monitors compliance with the antidiscrimination clauses in federal government contracts.
  • May 17, 1954 - The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.
  • May 31, 1955 - The U.S. Supreme Court issues a vague ruling outlining the implementation of desegregation to occur "with all deliberate speed," a ruling now commonly known as Brown II.
  • August 10, 1955 - A cross is burned on the front lawn of the Richmond home of civil rights attorney Oliver W. Hill.
  • August 27, 1956 - Governor Thomas B. Stanley announces a package of Massive Resistance legislation that will become known as the Stanley Plan. Among other things, the plan gives the governor the power to close any schools facing a federal desegregation order.
  • May 1959 - The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals as well as the U.S. District Court rule that the Massive Resistance policies, aimed at preventing desegregation, are unconstitutional.
  • September 1959 - Though Massive Resistance has already ended, the Prince Edward County School Board closes its public schools to resist desegregation.
  • 1960 - Oliver W. Hill Sr. is appointed to the national Democratic Party's biracial committee on civil rights to prepare civil rights policy for the party's platform at its 1960 national convention. The Democratic Party in Richmond censures the national party for the appointment.
  • 1961 - President John F. Kennedy appoints Oliver W. Hill Sr. as the assistant for intergroup relations to the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration.
  • April 2, 1963 - In NAACP v. Button, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that activities of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP were "modes of expression and association" and therefore protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution.
  • May 25, 1964 - After Prince Edward County's public schools have been closed for the previous five years, the U.S. Supreme Court in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County rules that the county has violated the students' right to an education and orders the Prince Edward County schools to reopen.
  • 1966 - Oliver W. Hill Sr. returns to private legal practice as a partner in the firm Hill, Tucker, and Marsh in Richmond.
  • 1968 - Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr. appoints Oliver W. Hill Sr. to the Virginia Constitutional Revision Commission, which authors the Virginia Constitution of 1971.
  • 1993 - Beresenia Walker Hill, wife of Oliver W. Hill Sr., dies.
  • 1996 - The new Juvenile Courts building in Richmond is named for Oliver W. Hill Sr.
  • 1998 - Oliver W. Hill Sr. retires from his legal practice at the Richmond firm of Hill, Tucker, and Marsh.
  • August 11, 1999 - President Bill Clinton awards Oliver W. Hill Sr. the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • February 6, 2003 - Oliver W. Hill Sr. is named Virginian of the Year by the General Assembly.
  • 2005 - Oliver W. Hill Sr. receives the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor.
  • 2005 - The renovated Finance Building, the third most historically significant building on Capitol Square in Richmond, is renamed the Oliver W. Hill Sr. Building.
  • August 5, 2007 - Oliver W. Hill Sr. dies at his home in Richmond.

References

Further Reading
Buni, Andrew. The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902–1965. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Daugherity, Brian J. "'Keep on Keeping On': African Americans and the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia." In With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education, edited by Brian J. Daugherity and Charles C. Bolton, 41–57. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008.
Hill, Oliver W., Sr. The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond: The Autobiography of Oliver W. Hill, Sr. Edited by Jonathan K. Stubbs. Winter Park, Florida: Four-G Publishers, 2000.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage, 2004. Reprint.
Smith, Larissa M. "A Civil Rights Vanguard: Black Attorneys and the NAACP in Virginia." In From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy, edited by Peter F. Lau, 129–153. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Fergeson, L. S. Oliver W. Hill (1907–2007). (2014, March 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Hill_Oliver_W_1907-2007.

  • MLA Citation:

    Fergeson, Larissa Smith. "Oliver W. Hill (1907–2007)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: September 24, 2013 | Last modified: March 25, 2014


Contributed by Larissa Smith Fergeson.